Can Hardly Keep Up

Romney and Culture: Flip-Flop-Flip!

Why did Romney flip-flop-flip on Palestinian culture? Same reason he does everything: appease the right.

It's a shame that this probably won't even sink through to most Americans, because you have to be paying pretty close attention to catch all this, but this Romney National Review article is absolutely mind-boggling. He certainly gives new meaning to the word kulturkampf--this struggle over culture is within himself! There's just nothing to this man at all. I keep saying it, and then I keep being shocked at how true it turns out to be.

Let's review. Monday he gave a speech in which he very clearly said that Israel's economic success relative to the Palestinians came down to "culture." It turns out, we later learn, that he said exactly this in a 2010 book. So it's not something that just flew out of his mouth.

Tuesday morning, he sat down for an interview with Fox's Carl Cameron, who actually asked him tough questions about it. Romney then, as we know, denied that he'd spoken of culture! Quote: “That is an interesting topic that perhaps can deserve scholarly analysis, but I actually didn’t address that."What? That was just a weasely lie, instantly rebuttal by video tape that wasn't even one day old. What sort of person tells a lame lie like that?

As a sidelight, note the similarity between his words in this moment of discomfort and the moment from some months ago about inequality, which he said was perhaps an appropriate subject for study in "quiet rooms." I'm not exactly sure what to make of it, but it's interesting enough to raise. Maybe it's just a deep distrust of common horse-sense and a faith in expertise. That's something that egghead liberals are supposed to be guilty of.

Anyway. That was all embarrassing enough. But then--literally within hours of the Cameron interview--up pops this National Review online piece, under his bylines, arguing...that culture does matter after all!:

During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it. In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy.

But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture?

That's not a flip-flop. That's a flip-flop-flip. In the space of what, 36 or so hours? Truly incomprehensible.

So what could explain it? Clearly, at some point during the day yesterday, the Romney people decided that the Cameron interview was a bad way to leave things, and they'd better double back and fix it and return to position A. They're not stupid people, so they knew that in returning to position A they'd take plenty of lumps in the media. But they decided it was worth it anyway. Why?

Theory number one: Romney said to his staff something like, "But it's my deep conviction that culture does matter!" Yeah, right. As they say at the racetrack of bad mudders on a rainy day: toss.

Theory number two: It's just incompetence. Well, maybe.

Theory number three: Someone complained to the candidate or the campaign about his backing off the original assertion. Ahhhh! Now we're on the scent of a body, Dr. Watson.

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I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that something like this happened. Some person or persons important in right-wing circles explained that "culture" is indeed what matters. It's a word of great importance on the right. Culture explains the differences between the industrious people and the layabouts. Culture is what makes us superior. Plus, talking of culture is a nice way to dog-whistle to evangelicals.

As a(nother) sidelight, it's clear that Romney or whoever wrote this piece doesn't actually understand what culture even is. It speaks of culture as chiefly an economic matter, which is ahistorical and absurd. If culture means freedom, a word (or variant) used repeatedly in this short essay, and freedom is what produced economic might, then how does he explain China? Besides all the other problems, it's a very ill-informed thesis.

In his Times column today, Tom Friedman nailed the whole trip:

Since the whole trip was not about learning anything but about how to satisfy the political whims of the right-wing, super pro-Bibi Netanyahu, American Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, why didn’t they just do the whole thing in Las Vegas? I mean, it was all about money anyway — how much Romney would abase himself by saying whatever the Israeli right wanted to hear and how big a jackpot of donations Adelson would shower on the Romney campaign in return.

That's all exactly true. But with this NRO piece it got even worse. If my theory is correct, and it fits with what Friedman wrote, the whole purpose of the trip was to pander to the Israeli and the American (and the Catholic, with the Poland leg) right wing. The denial of the role of culture that he expressed to Cameron was seriously off-message, and I feel certain that someone important reminded him, and so they rushed out the damage-control NRO piece.

Again, we see the pattern. Trembling fear of the right. No ability at all to depart from their script, even, now, by one single word! And speaking of single words, to those who object to the word we laid on him this week...well, he sure seems intent on doing all he can to prove us right.